By Karel Strubbe, EMEA sales director, TOMRA Sorting Food
What matters more for food businesses, quality and safety or quantity? The long-standing consensus among food growers, packers and processors is that quality is crucial. Delivering a high-quality product – uniform in size, shape and color and free from contamination, foreign materials and damaged items. Delivering a safe quality product results in maintained consumer trust and maximized sales and profits, whilst ensuring the brand is protected.
But does food quality and safety and food quantity have to be opposing factors, so that as output increases quality suffers? The fact is, food businesses must increase production to meet growing global demand for food, and many are also looking to diversify into new markets and categories. It is more vital now than ever before that these businesses ensure the highest food quality and safety.
There isn’t one simple solution, but there are various actions food businesses can take to cut out defective produce, optimize yields and keep the customer coming back.
The risk of foreign objects
Foreign objects and materials can cause food manufacturers serious consequences. In a recent report from the Stericycle Recall Index, it is noted that foreign materials are the leading cause for product recalls1 in the United States. The study found that 78 per cent of the recalls caused by foreign material were due to metal being found in the product, highlighting how evident this issue is in the supply chains of today and how imperative it is to eliminate this risk.
Materials such as plastic, glass, wood, cardboard and animal contamination tend to also be among the biggest issues when it comes to foreign objects. There are also instances where mice, frogs and rats are found within fresh and processed foods, and businesses around the world are known to check for rattlesnakes during the sorting and grading of green beans.
In terms of meat, the risk of contamination can be heightened by foreign objects. Both plastic ear tags and plastic gloves are historically known to have evaded quality checks throughout supply chains, and unfortunately ended up in the hands of a consumer.
From a consumer’s perspective, finding a foreign object within packaged food isn’t just shocking, it can be a deeply unsettling and upsetting experience which breaks their trust in the brand. This inevitably results in a negative impact on relationships throughout the supply chain.
When product quality incidents occur within the consumer marketplace, the consequences can be hugely damaging to the reputation of brands and retailers.
We live in the age of the internet, with social media as a mainstream platform amongst consumers. With this comes the ability for consumers to easily expose any dissatisfaction with a product or brand, reporting any cases of foreign object contamination to a large-scale audience at the touch of button.
This form of publicity caused by one incident could have catastrophic consequences, when in fact with the right systems in place, it could be easily avoidable.
A multiple, not single, solution
Manual sorting alone cannot possibly generate foreign material-free products. Within sorting and grading systems for vegetables, fruit or potatoes, automated harvesting systems mean an average of 100 tonnes of produce passes through the process per hour. The reality is that human eyes aren’t able to pick up on all foreign objects among these large volume, so it needs to be a machine-led exercise.
Still, it is not simply a case of replacing manual labor with sorting technology. Instead, businesses must implement a multi-step process to eradicate the risk of unwanted materials finding their way through the supply chain, and invest in high-quality systems to ensure no defective materials are generated by the chain – a bolt which has come loose somewhere during the process from processing equipment, for example. This means effective sorting at every stage of the supply chain and processing line – during harvesting, processing and packaging.
Optimising defective and imperfect foods
A prominent area of the perceived quality of food is its attractiveness and appearance. But with the implementation of premium grading systems, various qualities of product can still be used throughout the supply chain.
If a product has a slight bruising or blemish, this doesn’t mean that the entire item must be thrown out and wasted. Using the correct technologies can remove the less than premium aspects and maintain a high-standard end product.
Similarly, to ensure a reduction of waste within the potato industry, stringent size profiling measures are taken to optimize the end product. A well-rounded potato creates the highest-quality wedges, as it can be can be split into eight equal parts of the same size and shape, whilst a twister or curly fry requires a much larger potato to produce its attractive curl.
This brand consistency is a key driver in bolstering food quality – if the produce isn’t perfect for one purpose, it can likely be reviewed and repurposed for another.
Improvements within fruit
Fruits such as strawberries and raspberries are becoming a part of everyday diets, leading to an increase in investment to develop and improve small format fruit grading machinery.
With frozen fruit, some of the colour in the product may be lost and replaced with a white frosting caused through the exposure to negative temperatures. However, if there is already a discolouring to the fruit pre-freezing, the end product could look unappealing and unappetising to a consumer.
A solution here is to incorporate sorting and grading systems at the very start of the process, meaning any defects or potential foreign objects can be removed before the fruit gets frozen. As well as reducing the risk of poor quality, this also brings down the energy consumption levels, as the damaged fruit isn’t being unnecessarily frozen.
To maximize the supply chain efficiency and reduce the number of incidents when it comes to food quality and foreign objects, continuous developments within the industry are required.
The future of food quality is coming from a connected supply chain, with the internet of things meaning that machines are able to interact with one another and share data with owners. Through enabling the communication of in-depth data between growing, sorting and distribution technologies, the condition and journey of a product can be optimized across the whole supply chain.
Taking contaminated lettuce as an example, this advancement is allowing food manufacturers to go back through each stage of the product’s journey and identify not only where the issue occurred, but which time of day and what growing location. Innovations such as the internet of things (IoT) and the Cloud solutions will soon be able to monitor, optimize and trace every step in the supply chain.
As investigatory technology becomes more advanced, these innovations will allow growers, packers and processors to directly pinpoint issues, then provide an efficient and effective solution that ensures an increased quality of end products.
Ensuring quality, safety and quantity work in harmony
In reality, technological innovations have made it feasible for supply chains to be able to handle large throughputs whilst maintaining high levels of quality and safety.
There’s no denying that there is a greater requirement from customers for increased quantities of produce to meet consumer demands in the marketplace. It isn’t a case of neglecting quantity for quality and safety – it’s about those three aspects working parallel with another to deliver the best end product possible. The processing power, width and capabilities of the sorting machine have been adjusted to address huge throughputs, adhere to strict quality regulations and operate as safely as possible.
Take a field of crop as an example. Previously when the crop had been impacted by adverse weather conditions, the decision may have been made not to harvest the plot at all due to the potential poor quality of produce.
However, with the automated high throughput sorting machinery of today, the field can still be harvested and the premium produce can be retained, with the less premium or defective produce repurposed or removed from the chain in its entirety. This, in return, works from both a quality and quantity standpoint – all the produce is being used to its best purposed within the supply chain.
Keeping those who matter on side
Quality, quantity and safety are key to keeping consumers happy. With incidents such as foreign objects, defects and unappealing products, sensor-based sorting and grading systems are more important than ever to help growers, packers and processors ensure high quality products, optimize yields and maximize profits.
The first picture is Karel Strubbe, EMEA sales director, TOMRA Sorting Food, the author.